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Montana Prefers Pit To Dispose Of Butte's Parrot Tailings

The Parrot Smelter operated between 1891 and 1899
The Parrot Smelter operated between 1891 and 1899

The State of Montana says the best way to clean up toxic waste rock at the former Parrot copper smelter site in Butte is to dump it into the Berkeley pit. The buried tailings threaten to contaminate Silver Bow Creek and the Clark Fork River.

Harley Harris, program manager for Montana’s Natural Resource Damage Program says the state considered moving the tailings to mine waste repositories nearby but:

"The plan concludes that disposition into the pit, into the waters of the pit, is the preferred alternative," Harris says.

Preferred because the tailings are closer to the pit than other waste disposal sites, and could be transported in bigger trucks without using public roads.

Approximately 270,000 cubic yards of contaminated tailings would be moved. The state’s plan says preliminary estimates show that dumping the waste into the pit would cause only a “negligible” rise in the pit’s water level, and a minor change in the water’s chemistry.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency believes the Parrot tailings can safely be left in place. But the state’s Harley Harris says the federal agency is “supportive” of what Montana is proposing.

The state, EPA, and two private companies are still negotiating the final Superfund clean up settlement for Butte. Until that’s done, it’s unclear whether there will be enough money available to move the Parrot tailings.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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